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Reno’s Vacant Buildings: Blight or Potential Tourist Attraction?

The neon sign for the Golden West Motor Lodge.
Natalie Van Hoozer

Earlier this month, the Reno City Council made a controversial vote to demolish two downtown motels.

Natalie Van Hoozer takes a look at this particular case and what might be in store for Reno’s vacant buildings as the city grows.

I’m standing on Virginia Street outside of the Golden West Motor Lodge with Britton Griffith-Douglass, the president of the Riverwalk Merchant’s Association. She says that to her, the property is an eyesore.

The City of Reno plans to demolish the Golden West Motor Lodge and the Heart o' Town Motel by this fall. This photo depicts the old neon sign for the Golden West Motor Lodge and the brick siding of the building.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy
The City of Reno plans to demolish the Golden West Motor Lodge and the Heart o' Town Motel by this fall.

“You see a parking lot that has not been repaved in probably over a decade, more than that,” she says. “You see a roof that’s falling apart, you see graffiti all over the building. The paint job, what’s left of it, is very damaged and it looks forgotten.”

The parking lot and boarded up doors and windows of the Golden West Motor Lodge.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

Reno City Council voted to demolish both the Golden West Motor Lodge and the Heart o’ Town Motel on behalf of the Northern Nevada Urban Development Company, which owns the property. The group did not return several requests for comment.

At that council meeting, Giffith-Douglass spoke in favor of tearing them down.

“It was also not just dilapidating to the buildings, but to our image downtown,” she says. “We wanted to show people that we are here, we are open for business, and that was really what was important to our merchants.”

The boarded-up windows of the Golden West Motor Lodge are visible through the wire fencing.
Credit Natalie Van Hoozer

For Alicia Barber, chair of the Historical Resources Commission, the fact that her committee was not consulted is a concern.

“In this issue in particular,” she says, “we would really have hoped that the process would have included input by the Historical Resources Commission on, ‘What is the historical significance of these properties? Do they have architectural significance and do they have significance to the story of Reno? And beyond that, what is their potential for adaptive reuse?’”

That is why Barber and the commission are drafting suggestions to the City Council asking to be included when similar structures are considered in the future.

A neon sign in the shape of a red arrow, denoting the Golden West Motor Lodge.
Credit Natalie Van Hoozer

Kelly Rae, a partner in HabeRae Properties, says there is historical significance because they’re mid-century motels, making them a potential draw for tourists.

“The architecture is classic mid-century architecture, which is extremely popular,” she says. “People love them. In Palm Springs, they have a billion-dollar tourism industry, all on mid-century, modern hotels.”

An outdoor light fixture on the Golden West Motor Lodge.
Credit Natalie Van Hoozer

That is why HabeRae offered to buy the motels for $2.4 million, but the offer was not accepted and no counter offer was made.

Local urban planner Fred Turnier who used to work for the City, says that going forward, keeping old buildings like these motels could be an asset to Reno’s future.

“What I would like to see is that some of these older buildings given a chance, to see what that repurpose, what that adaptive reuse can be,” he says. “So it just adds to that tourism, the events in the community.”

City officials say demolition was necessary because these motels were a safety concern. Police were regularly called in due to criminal activity and code violations.

For Darrell Clifton, the president of the Regional Alliance for Downtown Reno, the decision reflects a commitment to creating a new image for the city.

“Even if those motels were open right now, they don’t meet the vision of the people downtown,” he says. “Downtown I think is trying to become a university town and a renaissance town, and a place where things are happening and there’s development and there’s progress.”

The exterior "enter" sign indicated the parking lot for the Golden West Motor Lodge.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

Developers, historical advocates and city officials all anticipate similar debates in the future and say that each one needs to be evaluated on an individual basis. 

Natalie is a freelance journalist and translator based in Reno, Nevada, who reports in English and Spanish. She also works for the nonprofit SembraMedia, supporting independent, digital Spanish-language media in the United States.
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